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The latest annual B2B Content Marketing report [pdf] is out from the Content Marketing Institute, MarketingProfs and Brightcove. The headline result is that considerably more B2B content marketers this year than last are focused on building audiences. But does that mean that the content itself is becoming more customer-centric?

A Few Key Stats to Start

Before getting to audiences, here a few broad stats to set the scene from this year’s study.

  • 91% of B2B marketers are using content marketing, up from 89% last year.
  • 34% describe their maturity level as “sophisticated” or “mature,” a step up from last year’s 28%.
  • Content marketers estimate allocating 26% of their overall marketing budgets to content, down from 29% last year. Those who describe their maturity as “sophisticated” or “mature” allocate one-third of their budgets to content.
  • 56% are “extremely” or “very” committed to content marketing, down from last year’s 63%.
  • 24% rate the success of their approach as “extremely” or “very” successful, up slightly from 22% last year.

About Those Audiences

Almost two-thirds (63%) of B2B content marketers this year say that they’re “much more” or “somewhat more” successful than last year. That level of enthusiasm is encouraging, though on par with last year’s results (62%).

Once again this year, the greatest factors to which respondents ascribe their greater success this year are: 1) higher-quality, more efficient content creation; and 2) strategy developments or adjustments.

In other words, B2B marketers are producing better content and doing so in a more strategic manner. That’s certainly a recipe for success.

On a strategic level, 80% of B2B content marketers this year agree that their organization is focused on building audiences (building one or more subscriber bases). That represents a sizable uptick from last year’s 68%, indicating that this might be one of the more important trends to come out of this year’s report.

But there are a couple of separate findings in the study that suggest that while the strategic goals are shifting towards audiences, the content itself (remember, content quality is one of the key perceived factors for success) needs to play catchup.

The following 4 data points show that B2B marketers – while on the way – are yet to fully realize an audience focus in their content.

  • 72% always/frequently consider how their content impacts the the overall experience a person has with their organization, basically unchanged from 71% last year.
  • 67% always/frequently focus on creating content for their audience versus their brand, down slightly from 69% last year.
  • 60% always/frequently provide the right content to the right person at the right time, an encouraging increase from 50% last year.
  • However, only 41% always/frequently craft content based on specific points of the buyer’s journey, with this a sizable decrease from 53% last year.

Delivering content to the right person at the right stage of the buyer journey is certainly a challenge – and a key aspect of marketing enablement, as outlined in our recent Marketing Enablement trends deck (download here). This should improve, as a majority of B2B marketers are investing in analytics tools (87%), content management systems (63%) and marketing automation software (55%), among others.

More worrisome is that one-third are still creating content that’s focused on the brand rather than the audience – and there hasn’t been any positive movement since last year on that front. If content marketers are to focus on building audiences as their main priority, it seems reasonable to suggest that they take a similar focus on creating content for those audiences…

Content Types and Channels

Shifting gears, the study also takes a look at the types of content used by B2B content marketers along with the channels most popular for distributing that content.

This year there’s been a contraction in the number of content types used, down a couple to an average of 6 per respondent.

Social media posts, excluding video in this case, continue to be the most broadly used type of B2B content, by virtually all content marketers (94%). Case studies (73%), pre-produced videos (72%), and E-books/white papers (71%) follow in close succession, with infographics (65%) rounding out the top 5.

Research reports are among the content types that seem to be growing in favor, with 37% producing them this year, up from 28% last year. This may be due to a growing perception of effectiveness: various pieces of recent research – as outlined in this article – have shown that content marketers feel strongly about the effectiveness of research reports as a lead gen vehicle.

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As for those buzz-worthy podcasts? Almost one-fifth (17%) are using them this year, up from 12% last year.

When it comes to the most effective types of content used, this year’s respondents are most convinced about E-books/white papers, case studies and social media posts.

Turning to content distribution, and email (93%) and social platforms (92%) are tied at the top of the list, though email (newsletters and welcome emails) are considered effective by far more respondents than social media platforms. Among social platforms, LinkedIn is used the most commonly and is easily perceived to be the most effective.

With respect to email, event emails (63%) are the single most popular type, while around half (51%) are using lead nurturing emails. Many marketers are also sending newsletters, whether those be monthly (48%), ad hoc (31%), biweekly (13%), weekly (11%) or daily (3%).

Measuring ROI? Not So Much

Content measurement remains an area in need of improvement, per the report. Fewer than half of B2B content marketers describe the alignment of their metrics and content marketing goals as “excellent” (3%), “very good” (16%) or even just “good” (27%). Many instead see that alignment as “fair” (24%) or “poor” (13%).

Content marketers are also struggling to measure the ROI of their content marketing efforts, with just 35% saying they do so. Those who don’t give a variety of reasons, including: the lack of formal justification required (38%), needing an easier way to do it (38%); and not knowing how to do it (27%).

Even so, respondents using metrics to determine content marketing results are fairly confident in what they can measure: 77% feel that they can measure increased audience engagement; 72% can measure how content has increased their number of leads; and 51% can show how content has increased their organization’s sales. Only one-quarter feel able to demonstrate that content marketing has decreased their cost of customer acquisition, however.

That won’t stop spending, though: 84% will either maintain their current content marketing budgets (46%) or increase them (38%) over the next 12 months.

The full study can be found here [pdf].

About the Data: This year’s study is based on a survey of 870 B2B marketers in North America from a range of company sizes. The tech (28%), agency (20%) and manufacturing (14%) sectors were most heavily represented.

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